Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Game 1: Sunday at Michelob Ultra Arena (noon, ABC)
Game 2: Wednesday at Michelob Ultra Arena (6 p.m., ESPN)
Game 3: Oct. 15 at Barclays Center (noon, ABC)
*Game 4 (if necessary): Oct. 18 at Barclays Center (5 p.m., ESPN)
*Game 5(if necessary): Oct. 20 at Michelob Ultra Arena (6 p.m., ESPN)
The stars will be shining, as they should be, when the Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty — dubbed by national media outlets as the league’s “superteams” meet beginning Sunday in the best-of-five WNBA Finals.
Star power, after all, draws eyeballs to the product, and the Aces and Liberty — the league’s top teams — certainly have their share of notable players. There are five MVP trophies and 38 all-star appearances between the franchises.
The squads meeting in the WNBA Finals became the obvious conclusion during the offseason when the Aces signed Candace Parker to bolster their championship roster and the Liberty traded for former MVP Jonquel Jones and signed prized free agent Breanna Stewart.
They’ll meet in the most anticipated WNBA Finals, arguably, in league history with Game 1 of the best-of-five-game series at noon Sunday at Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay. There is so much intrigue in the series that Games 1 and 2 (and Game 5, if needed) in Las Vegas are sold out.
“As a fan of the league, it’s put more eyes on the league, and I’m sure the finals viewership will be extremely high,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said.
“To be able to be a part of that is special, because this league has been around and there has been a lot of great rivalries. To be part of one, or one that’s forming, is really cool. We can talk it down or talk it up all we want, but at the end of the day, these are the best two teams in the league going at it, and somebody’s got to come out a winner.”
So by no means are the Aces (a minus-200 betting favorite) a shoo-in to become the league’s first repeat champions since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02.
“They’re a very good team, obviously. They’re talented at every position and they have a ton of firepower,” Plum said of the Liberty. “But you can’t get caught up in all these other things. We must focus on what got us here and what our team needs to do to win.”
Building winning teams
After a combined 19 wins from 2018 to 2020, the Liberty are in the midst of their third consecutive season going to the playoffs, and their second consecutive under coach Sandy Brondello.
The turnaround began in 2020 when the Liberty drafted Sabrina Ionescu with the No. 1 overall pick. An ankle injury limited her rookie season play to just three games, but Ionescu has been the most important factor in New York’s turnaround. This year, she averaged 17 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game in the regular season and made 45% of her 3-point attempts.
The Liberty didn’t wait to build a championship-contending team around Ionescu.
They acquired Jones, the 2021 MVP, from the Connecticut Sun in January in a three-team trade that involved the Dallas Wings. The four-time all-star led Connecticut to the WNBA Finals just four months prior — which the Sun lost to the Aces.
New York wasn’t done.
The Liberty took a swing at Stewart, arguably the best player in the world, after a six-year run in Seattle that included two championships and the 2018 MVP. Days later, they added multitime all-star point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who spent her first 12 years with Chicago.
The results were as expected. The Liberty went 32-8, finishing second behind the Aces in the standings, and Stewart narrowly captured her second MVP trophy.
The Aces’ core has been built through the draft. A’Ja Wilson, Jackie Young and Plum were each drafted No. 1 overall. Their quick success allowed them to sign Chelsea Gray in 2021 and round out the “Core Four” in Las Vegas.
Wilson is a two-time league MVP and one of the game’s most dominating players. Gray was the MVP of the Finals in 2022, and Plum and Young are two-time all-stars.
That’s not to say the Aces haven’t made critical free-agent signings of their own beyond Gray. They signed center Kiah Stokes in 2021 after a six-year run in New York, and this year’s Sixth Woman of the Year, Alysha Clark, this past February.
The needle moved more when the Aces signed Parker, the former two-time MVP and two-time champion, in February.
“How much we’ve grown as a franchise, it’s been incredible. That’s why I really don’t like this ‘superteam’ term because it takes away from us growing and our ability to be together,” Wilson said. “We built this from the ground up. Yes, we made additions from Chelsea and AC, but we are core-built. We sucked. That’s how we got three No. 1 picks.”
How they match up
For as highly anticipated as each matchup between the two teams was during the season, none of the games was close. The Aces and Liberty split the four regular-season meetings; both home teams won, and three were decided by double figures. In the other, a nine-point New York win Aug. 28, the Liberty led by as many as 19.
That’s not counting the Liberty’s Commissioner’s Cup victory over the Aces, at Michelob Ultra Arena on Aug. 15, which was a 19-point decision.
New York will rely on its size and rebounding, especially if Parker isn’t available in the series as she recovers from foot surgery. Parker hasn’t played since July 7.
The Aces have not only gotten by without Parker — going 18-4 since July 9, 23-4 counting the 5-0 playoff run — they have still shown signs of domination. They’ve outscored opponents by an average of 15 points in those 27 games, shooting 45% from the floor and 35% from 3-point range.
Plum said she was proud of her teammates protecting the paint and winning the rebounding battle in their three-game sweep of the Dallas Wings in the semifinals. They’ll need that kind of play against the talented frontcourt of Stewart and Jones if they are to be successful in the Finals.
“I don’t think we strung together four quarters of it throughout each game, but when we got the opportunity to clamp down and get stops and rebounds, we did,” Plum said. “That’s a big team, a physical team. I thought our group did an incredible job when we needed to.”
Wilson isn’t fond of the superteam label, saying it discredits the long hours of preparation the team has logged to be a handful of wins away from repeating as champions. But, that’s just what is in store with a championship on the line.
“You can’t just say because we got our individual accolades, we got this superteam. We do the work in the offseason. We get better, and we try to be better for each other,” Wilson said. “You’re taking away from these other great teams in a league that has great players. It’s gotten annoying.”
Brondello, speaking after New York beat Connecticut in the semifinals, shared a similar sentiment.
“I think that’s the narrative everyone wanted at the start,” she said. “I didn’t particularly like the superteam thing, but you know these players, they still played great. It was a process for us to get to this level now, and I think it’s going to be a great series.”
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